On Nationalism

The nation-state was born in 1792, when France was established as a republic built around the idea of an ethnically French nation. At the time only one in five French citizens spoke French. Over the coming decades, a bold campaign was launched to teach everyone within French borders to think French, speak French, and act French. The country’s linguistic and cultural minorities were suppressed, sometimes oppressively. Thus was formed the world’s first nation-state. The mode became all the rage in Europe, constructed either along the French model of making a nation where only a state had existed before, or the later German model of creating a state out of a preexisting national identity (in this case, the German language).

Nationalism spread – creating a British people out of Englishmen, Scots and Welshmen, creating civic-minded Americans out of immigrants hailing from countless nations, creating German and Italian states out of patchworks of principalities, dukedoms and city-states. Nationalism, for our purposes, refers to an ideology of political unity and the legitimacy of state power, based on coalescing around a common nationality. Nationalities, often contrived out of a variety of shared experience, custom and ritual, often include religious, linguistic, historical and cultural factors (though in the case of some countries, like the United States nationalism can be built around devotion to civil institutions and loyalty to an ethnically ambiguous state).

The problem was that not all regions conformed, or could be molded, so easily into nation-states. Nationalism came into South-eastern Europe in the mid-19th century. The region, long on the periphery of various empires, had been fashioned by historical circumstance into a patchwork of diverse groups, defined and divided by myriad factors: religion, language, culture, ethnicity. In the field of linguistics, the term isogloss describes the line on a map between two linguistic features, showing the dividing line between two dialects. The isogloss can be extended as a useful metaphor to other modes of division. Lines of divergent Catholicism/Orthodoxy, Ottoman/Hapsburg influence, Stokavian/Čakavian dialect, legacies of Roman/Byzantine rule, etc., cut across the Balkans in a muddle that defies any attempt to impose modern conceptions of “national” boundaries.

Before the 19th century, the nationalist experience had been a weak one in the Balkans. Bosnians, Croats and Serbs shared a mutually intelligible language; Croats and Slovenes shared their Catholicism, Albanians and Bosnians their Islam; Vojvodinians, Slavonians and Slovenes a Central European culture. The border between the German-speaking Austro-Hungarian Empire and Turkish-speaking Ottoman Empire, fluctuated back and forth in the region, imparting cultural, culinary, architectural influence but hardly even attempting to impose any sort of cultural homogeneity. Americans and Western Europeans visiting Eastern and Central Europe are often surprised to see that the main squares and streets in these capital cities are often dedicated not to generals and statesmen, but to writers and poets. This is because it was within the intellectual artistic communities that nationalism was first fomented in the region in the mid 19-century. The Slovene France Prešeren expressed a fledgling sense of nationalism in the 1844 poem “A Toast.” His statue now adorns the main square in Ljubljana and the words of his poem compose the lyrics of the Slovenian national anthem.

After the collapse of the great vast multi-national empires – the Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Russian Empires all vanished after the convulsions of the First World War – the all-knowing, modern Western powers that had just dragged the world through the mud and filth of five years of trench warfare (which incidentally killed 40% of Serbia’s male population) gave the Balkans the gift of nation-states. Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania were established along similar borders that they now occupy. The easiest thing to do with the pastiche in the middle was to create a South Slavic state, convenient, though not exactly nationalistically scrupulous. For the first nine years it was known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, but in 1927 became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (Yugo means “South”). Following the brutality wrought by nationalist fervor during the Second World War (in which the ultra-nationalist Croat Utaše Regime, a Nazi puppet state, sent Serbs, along with Jews and Gypsies to its death camps) the Socialist state of Yugoslavia was established by Marshal Josip Broz Tito, as a state in which all nations, no matter their relative size, were to be equally represented. For more than forty years, nationalism was suppressed in Yugoslavia, and indeed, to many, Yugoslavia seemed the very example of a peaceful, multi-national, co-habitative state. Many Yugoslavs report that they did not even know which religion their neighbors belonged to, nor did they care. Even the Albanian Kosovars, non Slavs in the South Slavic state, did not feel fundamentally out of place. In 1985, a Kosovar even served as the President of the Federal Yugoslav Republic: an event with as much symbolic import as Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States twenty years later.

As Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the late 1980’s, and in the first elections since the federation’s founding took place in 1990, nationalist parties took power in five of the six Yugoslav republics. Now, Yugoslavia has disintegrated into six, mostly homogenous, and highly nationalistic, nation-states (with Kosovo as the newest nation-state in the world, having declared independence in 2008). Slovenia is the most homogenous of these states, with next to no ethnic diversity, around 98% of the population is Catholic, and speaks Slovenian. As such, Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia provoked almost no dispute. Slovenian nationalism, based actually upon ethnic uniformity, gave Slovenians a certain insularism. As Yugoslavia’s political stalemate neared the point of collapse in 1991, Slovenia simply withdrew from the federation. Within the context of the bloody mess of the wars of Yugoslav Succession, Slovenia merely closed its borders. The nation-state is a far more comforting concept when there is only one nation within the state’s borders. Bosnia & Herzegovina remains as the only “Balkan” state in the Balkans: that is, the single state that is not structured around a nationality and that preserves the heterogeneity that historically typified the region. The balance is tenuous though, and probably unlikely to last. Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two states, autonomous in all but name only (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska). UN overseers remain in charge, with the power to overturn any legislation, or remove any politician advanced through Bosnia’s democratic institutions, if they are seen as undermining stability and non-sectarianism.

Serbs made up the largest national group in Yugoslavia. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which existed from 1918 to 1944, was built as a South Slavic state, but with the Serbs clearly in charge. The capital was in Belgrade; the King a Serb. The Kingdom was envisioned by some as destined to follow the French model. The Serbs would mold the other South Slavs into a uniform body, based on Serbian-ness. During the socialist Yugoslav years, nationalism became a dirty word, and a form of political suicide if espoused. All nationalities (whether one million Kosovars or six million Serbs) were equally represented in the Federal government. Not surprisingly, some resentments were bound to build among the larger nationalities, who felt that their size should entitle to them to a greater degree of political power. This led to the Serbian nationalism of Slobodan Milošević, who came to power in 1986 with designs to recentralize power in Yugoslavia along the lines of the envisioned plans of the original Yugoslav kingdom. His brand of virulent and violent nationalism instead led to the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars of independence and ethnic cleansing, and the deaths of at least 150,000 people.

The nation-state is now the dominant form of political organization in the world, and it is easy to forget that it was not always the preferred mode of governance. The United Nations does not actually represent the nations of the world, merely the nation-states (where is the Catalan representative, or the Tamil delegate?). It is forgotten that the French nation did not exist, it had to be built, sometimes by force. The Western world likes to impose its values and ideals on the rest of the world, and, as is the case in the Balkans, the idea of nationalism became the vogue in places where it (perhaps) did not really belong. The creation of Greece and Turkey as independent states in the early 20th century, led to the organized transport of hundreds of thousands of Greeks from Turkey, and Turks from Greece, across the Aegean. They left their ancestral homes to reach their so-called homelands. Slovenia fits the parameters of a nation-state, but many places do not, and as has been seen countless times over – in Croatia, Bosnia, Lebanon, India – people never hate and kill so much as when they are seized by the fear of becoming a minority in their own country.